In 1976 Warren Zevon in his debut album for Asylum records recorded a song that in some ways might have been an anthem of the times. The song in question, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” told a story of a young man with a problem: “These young girls won’t let me be. / Lord have mercy on me! / Woe is me!” The lyrics, stanza by stanza, rehearsed one “encounter” after another with “young girls” (age unspecified) in various places—west Hollywood, the Rainbow Bar, the Hyatt House—for a variety of activities with one thing common: sex. Full of mildly bawdy humor and a little cynicism, Zevon’s song sounds almost tame in today’s world of rap and rape, but it summed up the sexual revolution well enough: get what you can when you can.
Years later in a documentary on The Troubadour club in Hollywood, a famous mecca for rock entertainers, David Crosby talked almost wistfully about the easy drugs and sex at the club in the sixties and seventies until it all came more or less to a screeching halt with the advent of AIDS. Not much more was said about it—in the documentary, I mean—so one might think that the new plague ushered in a wave of puritanical morality for the Hollywood crowd. Indeed, various stories in recent years have told tales of tinsel town’s bucking the national trend of increasing divorce, showcasing a number of successful showbiz couples with well-scrubbed children (maximum of two, according to time-tested Planned Parenthood guidelines).
The perception of stable family life out west, however, has come to grief over the last couple of months, chiefly with the revelation of the predatory activities of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A family man (of sorts) and a vocal “progressive,” Weinstein has been busy for years, preying on starlets in a fashion so disgusting that one would be generous to call it perverse. After the early revelations (Rosanna Arquette, Kate Beckinsale, Lysette Anthony), one almost started getting bored with the latest “Weinstein” revelation of the day (seventy-seven others as of now). To borrow from Warren Zevon, what began with poor, poor pitiful us quickly resolved itself into eye-rolling. Could it get worse?
The answer is, yes. Every other day it seems a new celebrity is accused of groping or harassment; some names are bigger than others, but by and large, each new accusation places a major career in jeopardy. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Piven (Mr. Selfridge), director James Toback, and even Dustin Hoffman have come under fire, and the list goes on. Outside of Hollywood, commentator Mark Halperin and Today Show host Matt Lauer has been fired by NBC, followed quickly by Garrison Keillor’s departure from NPR.
And in Washington, D.C., where sex scandals are not exactly unheard of, Senator Al Franken (MN) and Representative John Conyers (MI), both darlings of the left, are lamely trying to avoid charges of harassment: Conyers, who knows nothing and remembers nothing; Franken, who interprets the charges as misperceptions of his propensity to hug everybody he meets.
Whether these scandals stem from the notorious Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair has become a matter of heated debate—oddly among Democrats. Regardless, a lot of powerful men schooled at the university of sexual license took their lessons to heart, clearly finding practice more fun than theory.
But what about the women involved? It’s a plain fact that about a year after Warren Zevon released “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me,” Linda Ronstadt “covered” it. It’s actually her version that most people remember. At the time, Rolling Stone exulted that Ronstadt’s “take” was, in essence, a declaration that anything Zevon could do, she could do better. Perverse sex as equal opportunity.
It should be axiomatic in a given sex scandal, large or small scale, that the fault goes to the male. Men are sexually aggressive, easily moved by feminine sexuality, physically strong, and, when moral and social restraints are lax, likely to interpret a wink or a smile as an invitation. Even when women are not victims, they are often vulnerable to men’s advances and sometimes easily seduced. The increasing number of single mothers supporting children has created a pool of women in need of male companionship—women often naïve about men who seem to answer a desperate need.
Nevertheless, it’s also the case that women live in the same society as the predatory males we’ve heard so much about; they absorbed the same lessons men learned. The proliferation of women’s magazines that blithely proclaim in explicit detail the delights of pre-marital sex, the increasingly immodest attire of female celebrities, and the shocking number of college courses instructing students in “safe” sex have all contributed to the breakdown of proper feminine restraint.
A woman, such as gymnast Gabby Douglas, who tries to buck the trends and argue for modesty risks being pilloried in the news until she recants. Women, as I say, are not the ones who deserve the blame in the new wave of sexual predations, but Alexandra Riesman’s response to Douglas isn’t likely to improve matters: “Woman [sic] are allowed to feel sexy and comfortable in their own skin. In fact, I encourage you all to wear what you feel good in.” To which she added tellingly: “STOP VICTIM SHAMING. It’s because of you [Douglas] that so many victims live in fear.” The chorus that twittered along with her went even further, with one responder tagged “Liberal Democrat” declaring “You never know who’s a pervert, but if you feel good with little or no clothes on [,] do it.”
What memories those last words summon up: “If it feels good, do it.” Men and women from 1967, the Summer of Love, to 2017, the Autumn of Weinstein, did and do things that once upon a time would have been considered shameful and socially ruinous. The sexual revolution, with a little help from Freud and Freudians, redefined shame as repression, and the floodgates of revolution were opened for, among other things, free love. But what does it really mean to “feel sexy” if not to behave or dress in a way that calls attention almost exclusively to one’s sex? What does it mean to lose one’s sense of shame other than to jettison one’s conscience and ignore all responsibility toward others?
If her claims of abuse prove true, Aly Riesman has every right to feel victimized. But she’s wrong, as are those who supported her, to ignore the need for modesty and shame, just as men are wrong to deny the virtues of self-control and, to use a very old word, chivalry. If we, men and women, demand no more of ourselves than the next shot at victim status; if we continue to scoff at the institutions, habits, and virtues that serve to collar the fallen beast within us; and if we live only to be “sexy” and feel good, the Autumn of Weinstein will become the Year, the Decade, the Century of Weinstein. Lord have mercy on us.